First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2014
Anyone with the misconception that Gaelic song is all twee and interminably mournful should spend a minute or several listening to Kathleen MacInnes. The South-Uist singer has a voice like peat smoke and good whisky, as robust, sassy and soulful as it is supple and expressive. She strode on stage in skinny jeans and a slick white blazer and chatted warmly with the Celtic Connections audience in her native tongue. Whether or not you understood the language, it would have been hard to miss the earthy charm that makes MacInnes such a stage natural.
That’s doubly the case when she starts to sing. With hands casually in her pockets and an easy, unwavering gaze, she sang of stubborn cows (â€œthis one really wouldna budgeâ€), of a cockerel that’s been missing since 1978, of the Stone of Destiny’s return to Scotland, of lovers separated by remote CalMac ferry routes. Often the lyrics feature strong Hebridean women; much of the material was from her 2012 album Cille Bhride, whose cover shows four feisty lasses propping up an island goods truck. And she delivered all of it through that smokey, unhurried low register, often giving the corners of phrases a bluesy tug, occasionally flitting upwards for soft inflections. There’s an earthy realness to her voice that somehow makes you want to sing along (much the audience did). MacInnes is a brilliantly unfussy singer; even her raspy inhalations add heaps of colour.
Her backing band consisted of just two musicians â€“ pianist/whistle player Mhairi Hall and the superbly sensitive fiddler/guitarist Mike Vass â€“ who kept their arrangements beautifully direct and spacious, often nothing more than hushed fiddle and harmonium drones. After a raucous opening set from Scots/Irish/Cape Breton quintet The Outside Track, it was exactly the right mellow balsam.